Talking Teaching

November 10, 2014

a surprising misconception

I spent much of the weekend marking first-year biology exam papers. It was a lovely weekend & I really didn’t want to miss all the nice weather, so I ended up finishing the task well after midnight last night. And in the process I identified evidence of what is, on the surface, a really puzzling misconception, one that relates to the effects of X-chromosome inactivation.

Now, we’d spent quite a while in class discussing X-chromosome inactivation in female mammals: why it happens, how it happens, & its phenotypic effects (anhydrotic ectodermal dysplasia, anyone?). One of the images I used in this discussion was of Venus, a tortoiseshell cat with an extremely unusual colour pattern:

This image comes from the NBC News site, but Venus is a very famous purrball who even has her own Facebook page, and I’ve blogged about her previously. She’s either a chimera, or we’re seeing a most unusual (but not unique) example of the typical X-inactivation tortoiseshell coat pattern. Anyway, I used a similar image of Venus and asked

What is the most likely explanation for the colour pattern shown in the coat of this female cat?

And about 90% of the class answered, “co-dominance”. Which really made me stop & think.

Why? Because it suggests that, while I’m sure they could quote me chapter and verse regarding a definition of co-dominance, they haven’t really thought any further about what that means in phenotypic terms. For if codominance were in play here, with both alleles for coat colour being expressed in each cell where the gene’s active, then we shouldn’t see that clear definition of the two halves of the cat’s face. Instead, both should be a fleckled mix (is ‘fleckled’ a word? Yes, it is; Shakespeare for the win once more) of black & golden hairs (rather like roan coats in cattle & horses).

And this gives me pause – & cause – for thought, because this isn’t a mix-up that I’d have even considered before. Is ‘codominance’ their shorthand for one gene, or the other, being expressed (due to X-inactivation)? Or do they really think that’s how codominance works? If so, it does suggest that a) I didn’t really explain codominance (or X-inactivation) all that well this year, & b) I need to review what I do before teaching that particular session again.

 

 

November 5, 2014

reflections on using AdobeConnect in a tutorial

Recently I went to a couple of seminars/tutorials on using AdobeConnect in teaching & learning. As I vaguely remember saying somewhere else, this bit of software looked a bit like panopto might, if it were on steroids, & I could see how it could be a very useful tool for use in my classes. Not least because (as you’ll have gathered from my last post), there’s some concern around student engagement, particularly among those who don’t actually come to lectures, & AdobeConnect seemed to offer a means of enhancing engagement even if students aren’t physically present.

I decided that I’d like to trial it in the two pre-exam tutorials I’m running this week (my class has its Bio exam on Friday – the last day of the exam period. No prizes for guessing what I’ll be doing for most of the upcoming weekend :( ) I would really, really like to use it during lectures, so that students not physically on campus can still join in, but, small steps…

So, first I set up my ‘meeting’. Work has made this easy by adding an AdobeConnect widget to the ‘activity’ options in Moodle, so that was pretty straightforward; I just needed to make the session ‘private’ so that students signed in using their moodle identity. The harder part of the exercise lay in deciding what to actually do when in the meeting room. In the end I set it up with a welcome from me, a ‘chat’ area, so students could ‘talk’ with each other & ask questions, and a ‘whiteboard’ so that I could draw (& type) in response to those questions. And, when the class actually started, I spent a few minutes showing everyone there (the 20 or so who were there in the flesh, & the 8 present via the net) what each of those ‘pods’ was for & how to use them.

You certainly have to keep on your toes when interacting with a mix of actual & virtual class members! My thoughts & observations, in no particular order:

  • remember to press ‘record’ right at the start, if you’re intending to record a session!
  • next time (ie tomorrow) I’ll remind those physically present that they can log into the meeting room too – this could, I suppose, be distracting, but it also means that they would be able to participate in polls, for example. I did it myself, at the launch of our ‘connect week’, just to see what everything looked like from the on-line perspective.
  • it was really, really good to see the ‘virtual’ students not only commenting & asking questions, but also answering each other’s questions. I hadn’t expected that and it was a very positive experience.
  • but do make sure that you encourage this cohort to take part; they need to know that you welcome their participation.
  • the rest of the class seemed to quite enjoy having others interacting from a distance.
  • next time, I’ll bring & wire in my tablet, & use that rather than the room computer. This is because I do a lot of drawings when I’m running a tut, and while you can draw on the AC whiteboards, using a mouse to do this is not conducive to nice smooth lines & clear, precise writing. I <3 touchscreens!
  • it’s very important to remember to repeat questions asked by those in the room: the microphone’s not likely to pick their voices up, & if you don’t repeat the question then the poor virtual attendees won’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.
  • with a pre-exam tut it’s hard to predict what resources might be used, in terms of powerpoints, web links & so on. For a lecture I’d be uploading the relevant files right at the start (ppts, video links & so on), but today I was pretty much doing things on the fly. However, I’m running another tut tomorrow & have put links to a couple of likely youtube videos into the meeting page already.
  • Internet Explorer seems to ‘like’ some AC actions more than Chrome; the latter wasn’t all that cooperative about ‘sharing my screen’, which seemed to me to be a better option than uploading at one point in proceedings.
  • as a colleague said, doing it this way meant that overall I had more people in class than would have been the case if I’d only run it kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face) – what’s not to like?
  • for me, the whole session was quite invigorating, & I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of learning to use a new piece of software to improve the classroom experience.

Mind you, on that last – it was my impression that the classroom experience was improved. And you’ll have gathered that I truly did have fun. But I’m not a learner in the way that my students are. So I asked them for feedback (interestingly, so far I’ve had only one comment + my response on Moodle, but as you’ll see we’ve had a reasonable dialogue on Facebook) – and here’s what they said:

BIOL101 Adobe Connect tutorial

So next year I will definitely be using this during lectures, and to interact with my Schol Bio group & their teachers – and I think we’ll definitely have one tut a week (out of the total of 6 that we offer) that’s via AC, so that students that can’t come onto campus can still  get the benefits of that sort of learning environment.

October 29, 2014

reflections on e-teaching and e-learning

Dear readers – what follows is a much longer post than I would normally write (& yes, at times I write some quite extensive posts!). This is because the current post constitutes my ‘portfolio’ to support nominations from my students for an e-learning award offered by my institution. I decided to write the portfolio in this form because blogging is a medium that I feel comfortable writing in, & because it’s so easy to add hyperlinks, files etc. (Consequently many of the links lead to my own reflective writing elsewhere on this blog, and to presentations I’ve given.) Plus I would really very much value feedback & comments – I don’t regard myself as anything approaching an expert (or even a journeyman) in this field and I know that my future practice will benefit from your insights.

That said, please do read on!

Technologies such as Moodle, panopto, AdobeConnect & the like allow access to learning opportunities  in a much more flexible way than the ‘traditional’ university environment, and this is going to become more and more important in the future as student demographics change. For example, as the number of people in the  18-25 age group continues to decline while the 50+ cohort continues to grow, then we will need to offer education to ‘non-traditional’ students and in ‘non-traditional’ ways. From an institutional perspective, using learning technologies in an interactive way can also help to ensure that we enhance retention and meet graduate profiles. For example, the graduate profile for our BSc says that students can communicate using a range of methods including multi-media (which includes web-based resources and activities), can work cooperatively, and have the skills necessary for self-directed learning: acquisition of all these attributes (plus the more usual acquisition-of-knowledge outcomes) can be supported by learning technologies, particularly those that are interactive.

So then, what does this look like in the context of my own teaching practice? I know some people see me as an ‘early adopter’ of classroom technologies like these, but on reflection I think my activities in this area have grown organically – much like my teaching career, I suppose.

RELECTIONS ON APPLYING TECHNOLOGY TO TEACHING & LEARNING

Moodle and Facebook: 

Alison is constantly introducing new ways for us to learn through technology. From educational videos and other resources on Moodle to an accessible Facebook forum for students to share their own passion for biology, she has been experimenting successfully with the digital resources available to teachers at the University of Waikato.

Great at technology, innovative ideas (eg facebook page for 101)

Very helpful both during lectures and tutorials. Very active on Moodle, promptly responds to forum questions, has created a Facebook page for the paper.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

I’ve used Moodle ever since it became available: paper outlines, study guide notes, powerpoints of lectures, assessment materials, quizzes, discussion forums, useful links & readings  – it’s all there. Once panopto came on-stream, links to lecture recordings went up on moodle as well, thanks to the WCeL wizards. I’ve always encouraged students to ask questions, join discussions, and post materials on Moodle (I have colleagues who’d rather receive individual emails but honestly! why answer the same question multiple times?) but interestingly, it was the first-year students who were most active in doing this.

However, in the last couple of years I’ve seen this activity drop right off, and it’s been something of a concern. Being asked for feedback on Moodle as part of the University’s process of identifying a new student management system really made me reflect more closely on this, partly in light of my own use of other on-line communities (not least of them, Facebook). From talking with students I gained the impression that moodle can be very ‘clunky': it takes at least a couple of steps to arrive at a resource, whereas on FB links are right there and obvious. The students complained that they were continually having to log in to moodle during the day, in contrast to remaining logged in on FB, and that they preferred the FB notification system. This got me thinking about how best to use this as an additional way of supporting my students’ learning and increasing their engagement. (This is not to say that they don’t use Moodle: a recent survey I carried out with our 2nd-year students shows that they clearly do – but they just don’t engage to any great extent.)

There’s a lot of literature available now about using Facebook to support teaching and learning. Fittingly, I was introduced to some of it through the Ako Aotearoa Academy FB page that I administer, but I’ve since talked more widely about it with colleagues at other institutions and started delving more deeply into recent publications; for example, Dougherty & Andercheck, 2014 (my reflections on that paper are here), and Kent & Leaver’s 2014 e-book, “An education in Facebook?”. And I sounded out my students, who were extremely positive about the idea. The result: we have a Facebook page for the first-year biology class, where they regularly post material & start discussions, and where I post course information and questions or polls (all mirrored on our Moodle page), along with links to other, science-based, FB pages.

BIOL101 student post

BIOL101 2nd student post

My thoughts after a semester? Yes, it’s a bit of additional work, because notices, polls and so on must be posted in two places rather than one, and because there’s the need to interact with other posters. It would be good to see more students there – at present just over half the class is present and at least observing on FB – but (and it’s a big ‘but’), commenters are far more lively and engaged than on Moodle, which seems to be reserved for ‘serious’ questions. That engagement is important, as it contributes to enjoyment and performance. Plus there’s also evidence that engagement (or lack thereof) with study, with teachers, and with the institution – can affect student retention.

As an aside, the lack of ‘personal’ feel to many MOOCs is a shortcoming of this method of content delivery; as the author of this blog post has said,

I think most MOOCs are just textbooks for the Internet age. A brilliantly delivered lecture or a brilliantly written book are both good content delivery systems. But without interaction, feedback, and mutual accountability that is all they can be.

We have to ensure we deliver that personal touch!

Anyway, next year I’ll be more systematic about my use of Facebook in relation to my teaching, in the sense of examining whether there is any correlation between use of the page and academic outcomes. And I’ll use tools like ‘question of the week’ – on both Moodle and FB – to try to lift engagement further.

Panopto

I leaped early into the panopto pool, and I’ve been splashing around in it ever since

Incorporates technology. Records every lecture for panopto and makes good use of moodle.

regular and helpful facebook user. encourages students to get involved in various online activities.

(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

Panopto’s a tool for capturing classroom teaching and making it available on-line for students to access whenever they please. I first became aware of it when the University was gearing up for its i-TunesU presence, and decided that the technology had a lot to offer me and my students as a tool to enhance teaching and learning practices. (I am definitely not a fan of technology for technology’s sake – it needs to have a pedagogical benefit.) And I’ve been using it ever since – for lectures, for podcasts, for catching up when I’ve had to cancel a lecture due to illness. I promote it whenever I get the chance, in tearoom conversation but also at conferences and symposia (e.g. Fun with panopto). (I also use it to review and reflect on my own classroom performance; the recordings are really useful when considering whether something could have been better communicated, although they are certainly unforgiving when it comes to things like mannerisms and use of voice!)

Students certainly value this technology. It gives them the flexibility to balance workloads, manage lecture clashes, revise for tests and exams, and to be absent due to illness or family commitments. Of course, it also gives them the ability to simply skip class and promise themselves that they can catch up later, something the literature shows doesn’t necessarily happen. I believe that we (academics) need to be more forthright in communicating with students around this, but that’s not to say that we should reduce our use of lecture recordings!

Able to pause and go over things i don’t understand. Can also do them in my own time.

For me, Panopto is most valuable during study week for revisiting explanations rather than for catching up on missed lectures.

Usually if I don’t watch an entire lecture on panopto it was because I preferred the text-book or other material to the lecturer’s style of teaching, or because the lecture recording failed, or because I listened to the lecture on podcast.

(2014 student feedback via surveymonkey)

There’s a lot more to lecture recordings than this. They can be used for ‘catch-up’ snippets – recordings of the slides at the end of the lecture that you didn’t get to because there were concepts that needed additional explanations. But panopto also supports more active learning techniques such as flip teaching, where a lecturer can prepare a short recording for students to watch ahead of class, and the actual classroom time is used for group discussions and problem-solving. For a couple of years now I’ve been running ‘Design-an-animal/Design-a-plant’ classes (described in the previous link) to consolidate student learning in a fun and cooperative way, during the A semester.

(2013 student feedback: Aspects of the paper that should be maintained)

The design a plant exercise. This exercise ties the knowledge we have acquired in past weeks, producing a
comprehensive well developed understanding of the adaptations and functions of different plants

the “designing a plant” was a great activity that was very interesting and exciting

the flip class which was really fun.

And in the B semester this year we had a session on DNA technology, where the class decided they’d like to hear more about GMOs: I provided short explanatory clips on gene cloning and PCR & DNA sequencing for them to watch ahead of time, so that we could spend the ‘lecture’ on discussion (and a very wide-ranging discussion it proved to be!).

Furthermore, techniques like this have a clear and significant positive effect on student learning (eg Deslauriers, Schelew, & Wieman, 2011)Haak, HilleRisLambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011) and we need to encourage their wider use as we reshape ourselves as a true ‘university of the future’.

 

REFLECTIONS ON SUPPORTING LEARNERS

Educators aren’t just using techniques like this simply because the technology has become available. There have to be positive outcomes for the students. I touched on some of these at the beginning of this post, in the context of ensuring that students have gained the attributes we describe in our graduate profiles.

However, another big plus for digital learning technologies is the way in which they allow us to meet the different learning needs of students. (I’m inclined to agree with the author of this post regarding different learning styles, mind you.) For example:

  • They really open up the options for students for whom work commitments, or geographical isolation, mean that they can’t attend classes in the ‘normal’ university hours.
  • For all students, the ready availability of lecture recordings means that they can review a class, or part thereof, as often as they need in order to gain understanding of concepts and information.
  • Students who are ill, or have lecture clashes, or sudden family commitments, don’t have to stress too much about missing classes (but see the following paragraph :) )
  • The fact that recordings are downloadable as mp4 files means that students can use them pretty much where & when they choose – on the bus, perhaps, or sitting in a comfy chair at home.
  • It’s easy to incorporate video clips, or even music (albeit with a scientific message) into classes. This opens up a whole new range of resources to use with our students (and breaks up the ‘lecture’ format, re-energising the classroom). This has occasioned some ‘interesting’ discussions over the use of such material from other institutions: it’s not “our” learning material, and students should be seeing our resources and ideas. This is true, but why re-invent the wheel? If an excellent resource exists, then use it! – and enhance the role of facilitator of learning, rather than simply someone delivering facts.
  • Technologies also empower students in ways that we might not always consider – for example, setting up a Moodle discussion forum for anonymous use means that someone who might be too shy to speak up in the lecture theatre can ask their questions, & make comments, in a less-threatening environment.
  • And having just attended a session on the use of AdobeConnect, I can see (& will make use of) the potential in being able to set up a ‘virtual’ pre-exam tutorial, synchronous with an actual class, for students who can’t make it onto campus for that particular session: they can see & hear what’s going on & ask questions of their own, for example. (It looks like panopto on steroids so I will admit that I’m left wondering what will happen to the latter in the future.)

I feel very strongly, however, that while we definitely need to provide learning opportunities for academic staff around learning technologies, we also need to educate students around their use. Despite the frequent use of the term ‘digital natives’ in discussion around our students and e-learning, the description really doesn’t fit our current cohort particularly well, and there’s a very interesting discussion of the term here. (It may be another story when the current crop of under-5s reach tertiary classrooms as many of them have truly grown up immersed in and using on-line technologies. And having said that, we also need to remember that there remain sectors of society who simply cannot afford to access the hardware to enable such learning. How do we enable them?) This means walking the class through what’s available on moodle, for example, or how to download an mp4 file of a panopto recording. But it also means discussing with our students – very early on in the piece – the perils and pitfalls of relying on recordings as an alternative to actually being in class eg the frightening ease with which you can fall behind in watching lectures after the event. This should be done with all first-year classes: many of this cohort have difficulty adapting to the different requirements, expectations, and learning environments of the tertiary system as it is and, lacking time management skills, can very easily fall off the wagon – something that has implications for both completion and retention.

She is very helpful and she knows her topic well. Very organised and goes beyond her duty to make sure students are getting everything in order to succeed. 
 
I think she is a really great lecturer and has used a range of different tools to help us learn in her lectures such as a drawing tool on the computer and has also created a Facebook page for BIOL102 to make it more interactive and fun to learn for everyone enrolled in the paper.
 
She is a really great lecturer, who makes a lot of effort to ensure her students get all the information they need to learn about what she is teaching. she also takes the time to make sure that students questions are answered, and always keeps in mind that because students have different learning levels, that she gives all the information required. 
Demonstrates a real passion for what she teaches. 
(Student nominations, 2014 e-learning award)

e-LEARNING & PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT

As I said earlier, I definitely don’t see myself as an expert in this field! This means that I frequently reflect on my classroom practice and the things I’ve learned (the focus of many of the posts here on Talking Teaching!), and I take advantage of professional development opportunities as often as I can. In the past I’ve attended quite a few workshops on various aspects of Moodle (and the on-line support materials are very useful too; thanks, WCeL team!). The university’s Teaching Development staff run regular Teaching Network sessions, where participants learn from each other on a whole range of teaching-related issues, & I go to these at every available opportunity. The most recent session, by Alan Levine, introduced the idea of pechaflickr as a tool for engagement and for learning, and that’s led me to think about using a pechaflickr session in tutorials, as a fun change of pace but also of a means of checking understanding of particular concepts. Definitely one for next year.

Sharing is good. And so I promote these technologies when I get the chance :) This year I facilitated a session on flip teaching at our annual WCeLfest (where I gained a lot from the participants’ feedback), but was also invited to take part as a panellist in a discussion of what our university might look like in a future where distance and blended learning make much more use of digital learning & teaching technologies. And I’ve previously shared their application at other conferences – in a 2013 discussion around how teachers’ roles are changing from disseminators of facts to facilitators of learning, for example. In addition, I led a discussion about MOOCs at a UoW Council planning day earlier this year, which also formed the basis of this particular post.

Learning technologies also have huge potential in terms of outreach to the wider community. For example, since 2005 I’ve been running Scholarship Biology preparation days for students – and their teachers – preparing for the Scholarship Biology examinations, which has involved travelling to deliver sessions in the Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Auckland and Hawkes Bay, as well as in Hamilton itself. (I also write another blog, originally intended to support these students and still containing a considerable amount of material that’s useful to them and their teachers.) But these face-to-face sessions are one-offs, as it were, so this year I decided to set up a Facebook page so that interactions and support could continue. Feedback from the teachers is very positive. Sadly,  the students have not been so engaged on the page,  although the teachers tell me their students are definitely using material from the page in class,  which is a great outcome from my perspective. I’ll leave this one up and running and hopefully, as resources build up and teachers encourage their students to use it from the beginning of the year, we’ll start to see some more active student participation. I can also see the value in using AdobeConnect to run occasional virtual tutorials for this far-flung group of students – it would be particularly valuable for those students who are the only one at their particular school sitting this exam, as they’d get the opportunity to interact with others (&, if I can work out how to set it up!) work cooperatively with them to solve problems in an on-line active-learning world.

Schol Bio FB feedback

 

 If you’ve read this far – thank you for staying with me :) I appreciate your company on what is for me a continuing journey of self-reflection and learning around my teaching practice. I’ll be grateful for your feedback – and I do so hope you don’t feel you’d have been better off sitting at home in your bunny slippers :)

best wishes, Alison

June 9, 2014

carl wieman on active learning

Recently I wrote about a paper by Freeman et al: a meta-analysis looking at the impact of active learning on student success in maths, engineering, & the sciences (the ‘STEM’ subjects). In the same volume of PNAS is an accompanying commentary by Carl WiemanWieman is a physics Nobel Laureate who also leads a research group working on improving teaching & learning in maths, engineering, & the sciences (which has resulted in some interesting initiatives at other institutions). Commenting on Freeman’s results, he notes that

Freeman et al. argue that it is no longer appropriate to use lecture teaching as the comparison standard, and instead, research should compare different active learning methods, because there is such overwhelming evidence that the lecture is substantially less effective. This makes both ethical and scientific sense.

Wieman goes on to say

However, in undergraduate STEM education, we have the curious situation that, although more effective teaching methods have been overwhelmingly demonstrated, most STEM courses are still taught by lectures – the pedagogical equivalent of bloodletting. Should the goals of STEM education research be to find more effective ways for students to learn or to provide additional evidence to convince faculty and institutions to change how they are teaching?

Personally I’d go for the former; there’s a wealth of information out there now. What’s needed now is to somehow get more university STEM educators to engage with the scholarship of teaching & learning in their various disciplines. Now there’s a challenge!

C.E.Wieman (2014) Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message. PNAS published ahead of print, May 22 2014. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407304111

March 12, 2014

teaching plant life cycles – trying a different approach

For whatever reason, I find that many students seem to struggle when it comes to learning about plant life cycles. The whole sporophyte/gametophyte, meiosis/mitosis thing really gets them – & that’s even before we start looking at how the life cycle is modified in different groups of plants. Yes, the textbook has lots of diagrams & yes, I’ve always started simple & worked on from there, with opportunity for plenty of questions, but still there are those for whom the topic fails to click. (Not to mention the lecturers in third-year classes, asking whether we really teach this stuff in first-year.) This year the issue’s become even more of a challenge, given that about 2/3 of my large-ish (N>200) didn’t study plants in year 12 at school.

So this year I wondered if it would help if I drew a really basic cycle on the board, as preparation for a more detailed session in the next lecture. I do this in tuts anyway, but not everyone comes to those… And because I use panopto for recording lectures, I needed to think about the best way to do it, because while there are whiteboards in the lecture room they are non-interactive, & the camera doesn’t do a good job of picking up things on a ‘normal’ board. And this is where having a tablet (not an iPad this time; it’s too frustrating when mine won’t communicate properly with the lecture theatre software) comes into it.

This is because, once the tablet’s hooked up to the lecture room system, then anything I might write on its screen (with my spiffy little stylus) is recorded via panopto. And so I left blank slides in my presentation, & drew all over them when we got to that stage, cute little frogs & everything :) (Why frogs? Because we started off with drawing an outline of an animal life cycle, slotting in meiosis & fertilisation, haploid & diploid – with the opportunity to expand on what those terms might mean – before going on to drawing alternation of generations in a very general sense.

Which sounds fine in practice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, now that I’ve gone & checked the recording, I see that the material on my tablet DIDN’T make it across to panopto, which is downright annoying & obviously I’ve stuffed up somewhere. OK, everyone in the lecture theatre got the benefit of that experience, but those who weren’t, didn’t :( And part of the reason for doing the recordings, is that those who’ve got lecture clashes can catch up later. Mutter mutter mutter.

However, all is not lost. I’m staying later at work for an evening event, so I’ll do a re-record once I can get into a free lecture theatre.

All part of the learning curve – as is the anonymised ‘feedback’ thread I’ve set up on our Moodle page. If the technique helped most students understand the concept of alternation of generations, then I’ll work on doing it better. If it didn’t, well, I guess I need to go back to the drawing board.

February 16, 2014

presenting on plants at WCeLfest

This post was first published on my ‘other’ blog.

For the last few years our Centre for e-Learning has run WCeLfest – a day of presentations & discussion around using various technology tools to enhance teaching & learning. I always find these sessions very valuable as there are a lot of people doing some really interesting things in their classrooms, & there’s always something new to learn & try out myself. I offered to run a session myself this year, which is what I’m going to talk about here, but I was also asked to be on the panel for a discussion around what universities might look like in the future, and that was heaps of fun too.

My WCeLfest session was billed as a workshop, so to kick things off I explained that the attendees were going to experience being in what is effectively a ‘flipped’ class, getting the students’ perspective, and why I’d developed the class in the way that I had. (I added that feedback on that experience was welcome!) I think there was one biologist in the room, so for most of those present the things they’d be doing would be just as novel as they will be for many of my students.

First, my ‘class’ got some extra background information. If previous years are anything to go by, then about a third of the students in my first-year biology class won’t have studied the year 12 Achievement Standards related to plants1. This always poses something of a challenge as we run the ‘plants’ part of the paper first, flowers & fruit being readily available in late summer (& I doubt things would be different if we taught it later in the paper). So I’m always thinking about improved ways to bridge students into the subject without boring those who have a reasonable background in things botanical.

The first lecture looks at what plants are & why they’re important, both ecologically & in terms of human history. For the last 2-3 years I’ve used an active learning exercise, putting up a graph on changes in atmospheric oxygen over the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence and asking the students to interpret and discuss the information it shows. But, using the same graph with a different group of learners, I realised that some of my students might not even know what photosynthesis entails, which would rather destroy the purpose of that part of the class.

So this year, they’re getting homework for the night before: this video. And at WCeLfest, we watched it together.

As you’ll have seen, there are a few, very basic, questions at the end of the video, but we stopped the video before reaching the quiz & instead briefly discussed and answered each question in groups, plus there were some additional queries, which was great. The original set of questions reinforce the basic concepts & give those students who were unfamiliar with them a bit of confidence that they’re prepared for the next step.

Now, for my ‘real’ class I’ll be showing an additional, more complex video, but for this shorter session we just moved on to the data interpretation.

Again, I explained the rationale behind this part of the session. I’d decided to do this exercise with my first-year students for a couple of reasons: firstly, to break up the class and get them actively engaged in the learning process; and secondly, to give practice in the process skills needed to interpret information provided in graphical form. The question they needed to address, using their knowledge from the video and the data in the graph, was: without plants, life as we know it wouldn’t have evolved in the first place. Why not?

O2 concn over time.png

As I do in my normal classes, while the class split into groups to come up with an answer, I circulated between those groups2 in order to hear what was going on & field any additional questions. “What was the atmosphere made of before photosynthesis began?” was one, which led to a brief consideration of how the Earth formed. And I needed to explain oxidised/oxidation, as well. This was a really valuable process for me as it’s highlighted a couple of areas where I need to do a little more background work with my first-years.

A quick summary of the class discussion: the ‘oxidation’ part is important because that’s how we know when oxygen generation began – iron-rich rocks began to rust. It wasn’t until the exposed rocks had been oxidised and the ocean had become saturated with oxygen, that oxygen began to be released into the atmosphere, as evidenced by more oxidised rock. As O2 accumulated in the atmosphere, the ozone layer formed, offering protection from the sun’s UV radiation & allowing living things to move onto the land.

And we finished with a quick look at the ‘design-an-organism’ class that I’ve previously blogged about.

The feedback was very positive, with several people saying that they could see how they might use the flipped classroom technique in their own teaching. It was also lovely to hear someone say that they’d got a bit worried when they realised we’d be talking science, but that they’d really enjoyed the experience and learned some new things along the way. And I’d learned ways to improve the exercise, so the enjoyment & learning were mutual

1 These are AS91155 Demonstrate understanding of adaptation of plants or animals to their way of life, and AS91156 Demonstrate understanding of life processes at the cellular level. You’ll find them here on the NZQA website.

2 In my ideal class3 there’d be an ‘aisle’ between every 2 rows of seating, to allow teachers/facilitators to move more freely among the students.

3 I can dream, can’t I?

February 7, 2014

not science as I know it

This was first posted on my ‘other’ blog :)

By accident,  I came across the curriculum document for Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) which provides teaching & learning materials to parents who are homeschooling their children. New Zealand students who complete the program right  to year 13 gain university entrance.

Home Schooling NZ gives parents advice about the ACE program, but makes it clear that HSNZ does not work for Accelerated Christian Education or sell their teaching & assessment materials.  However, I was startled to see the following listed by HSNZ as one of the ‘distinctives’ [sic] of the ACE program:

Each student is taught from a biblical perspective developing critical thinking skills that will enable them to discern what is truly “…the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2)

Having had a fair bit to do with the development of the Science section of the current national curriculum document, specifically, the Living World component, I was naturally interested in seeing how ACE handles a science curriculum. The answer is, poorly.

In fact, I feel that it’s most unfortunate that the ACE science program is officially recognised here, given statements such as this from Sir Peter Gluckman (the PM’s Chief Science Advisor) about the importance of science and science education. For example, from the curriculum overview material for grade 1 students we learn that students will

  • [pronounce and learn] new vocabulary words as they are defined and used in the text
  • [discover] God’s wisdom as he1 learns about God creating Earth…
  • [learn] about the design and care of the human eye and ear; high, low, soft and loud sounds.
  • [learn] about the importance of personal health – clean teeth and hands.
  • [gain] a respect for God as he learns about God’s wisdom, goodness, kindness, and that all things belong to God.
  • [read] stories and answer questions about God’s creation.
  • [continue] to build eye-hand coordination by drawing shapes, irregular shapes, and directional lines.

That’s it.

In contrast, the New Zealand Curriculum document has a number of subject-specific achievement aims for students at this level, in addition to those relating specifically to the nature of science. For example, students in their first year or two of primary school should

  • Learn about science as a knowledge system: the features of scientific knowledge and the processes by which it is developed; and learn about the ways in which the work of scientists interacts with society.
  • Appreciate that scientists ask questions about our world that lead to investigations and that open-mindedness is important because there may be more than one explanation.
  • Explore and act on issues and questions that link their science learning to their daily living.

Remember, that’s in addition to the achievement aims for biology (Living World), chemistry (Material World), earth sciences (Planet Earth & Beyond). and physics (Physical World).

And so it continues. I mean, how could this (from the ACE objectives for Grade 3) be construed as science by anyone assessing the document?

Studies Bible topics such as Jesus’ return; sin, death, and the curse; man’s freedom to choose to love and obey God.

Or this?

Discovers the Bible to be the final authority in scientific matters.

Science, it ain’t. It would appear that helping students to gain and enhance critical thinking skills isn’t on the curriculum either – after all, teaching students to look to authority for the answers runs completely counter to encouraging critical thinking and teaching students how to weigh up evidence.

While I haven’t read all the PACEs available for the curriculum, partly because I am not going to buy them in order to do so, I have read through the samples available on line. Among other things, the materials I viewed encouraged rote learning rather than deep, meaningful understanding of a subject – a long way indeed from current best-practice models of teaching & learning.

However, others have read ACE’s PACE documents, & have been extremely critical of them. The Times Education Supplement, for example, was startled to find that ACE materials available in 1995 contained the claim that the Loch Ness Monster has been reliably identified and seems to be a plesiosaur. (It seems this reference has since been removed from new textbooks published in Europe.)

The TES also addressed some rather trenchant comments to the UK educational body responsible for giving the ACE curriculum equivalent status to O and A level examinations. Perhaps the NZ equivalent of that body should give the ACE documents a closer second look.

 

1 No female pronouns used, that I could see. (No room for female scientists in this curriculum, either – students are introduced to ‘early men in science’.)

 

January 21, 2014

teaching laboratories – the shape of things to come?

A quick post from notes I took during another talk at the Ako Aotearoa Symposium last December: this was an exciting presention on the changing form of teaching laboratories, by Ken Collins and Joanne Kelly from Labworks Architecture (another colleague also mentioned this session, in her own post on the day’s proceedings).  Ken & Joanne began by noting that lab spaces are used for students to gain and enhance a range of skills: critical thinking, developing solutions to problems, working collaboratively, practising practical skills. ‘Traditional’ lab spaces don’t really accomodate all this, they said, & went on to explain why & to share with us some of the solutions they’ve developed for various clients.

Their focus was on the links between space, technology, and pedagogy (something that’s been missing in most of the labs I’ve taught in, where the technology’s been retrofitted as need and funding dictate). Having more flexible spaces encourages pedagogy, which in turn is enabled by space. Pedagogy is enhanced by technology, which will also place demands on space – after all, if you’re using computer screens to show things, you want to be in a room where all students have a clear line of sight to the sceens. In other words, a modern teaching space embeds technology, which of course extends how we use the space. (I see this a lot in the way our wonderful first-year tutor delivers our lab classes, retrofitted technology & all.)

More & more, this is equally true for how we use lecture/tutorial spaces.

‘Old-style’ learning spaces have always tended to focus on the perceived needs of the teacher, & to support highly structured, teacher-led, ‘instructional’ (didactic) learning experiences. Joanne & Ken believe – & I think most of those who attended their presentation would agree – that these days, in a modern classroom, about 15% of lab-room learning would be teacher-led. Of the remainder around would see students collaborating on various investigations 75% – ie there’s much more collaborative problem-solving, which realistically is how many workplaces operate anyway – and the remaining time is given over to small- & large-group discussion & feedback. It’s arguable whether that’s best done in a lab, & so the presenters showed classrooms they’ve designed where glass doors separate formal lab space from breakout spaces. I immediately added that to my mental ‘I’d really like this for our students’ list :)

They concluded by asking us to think about classroom space in general. We’re already seeing a move from libraries as study environment to ‘hubs’, with individual work spaces alongside commons, cafes, and alcoves where people can chill out or just sit for a quiet discussion. What will the future be like, as we continue down this road? (More virtual reality, perhaps? At a previous symposium we heard about the use of ‘virtual labs’, for example, via Second Life, allowing students to practice lab skills & protocols before actually coming into the real-world lab.) Certainly any changes should allow & support innovative practice in teaching & learning; for example, new lecture theatres could be low-pitched rather than steep, with room to move between rows, & thoroughly technology-enabled.

I’ll have to make sure these options are on the table, when the time for lab refurbishment rolls round.

December 12, 2013

Evaluating teaching the hard-nosed numbers way

[This is a copy of a post on my blog PhysicsStop, sci.waikato.ac.nz/physicsstop, 10 December 2013]

Recently there’s been a bit of discussion in our Faculty on how to get a reliable evaluation of people’s teaching. The traditional approach is with the appraisal. At the end of each paper the students get to answer various questions on the teacher’s performance on a five-point Likert Scale (i.e. ‘Always’, ‘Usually’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Seldom’, ‘Never’.)  For example: “The teacher made it clear what they expected of me.” The response ‘Always’ is given a score of 1, ‘Usually’ is given 2, down to ‘Never’ which is given a score of 5. An averaged response of the questions across students gives some measure of teaching success – ranging in theory from 1.0 (perfect) through to 5.0 (which we really, really don’t want to see happening).

We’ve also got a general question – “Overall, this teacher was effective”. This is also given a score on the same scale.

A question that’s been raised is: Does the “Overall, this teacher was effective” score correlate well with the average of the others?

I’ve been teaching for several years now, and have a whole heap of data to draw from. So, I’ve been analyzing it (for 2008 onwards), and, in the interests of transparency, I’m happy for people to see it.  For myself, the question of “does a single ‘overall’ question get a similar mark to the averaged response of the other questions?” is a clear yes. The graph below shows the two scores plotted against each other, for different papers that I have taught. For some papers I’ve had a perfect score – 1.0 by every student for every question. For a couple scores have been dismall (above 2 on average):

Capture1.JPG

What does this mean? That’s a good question. Maybe it’s simply that a single question is as good as a multitude of questions if all we are going to do is to take the average of something. More interesting is to look at each question in turn. The questions start with “the teacher…” and then carry on as in the chart below, which shows the responses I’ve had averaged over papers and years.
Capture2.JPG
Remember, low scores are good. And what does this tell me? Probably not much that I don’t already know. For example, anecdotally at any rate, the question “The teacher gave me helpful feedback” is a question for which many lecturers get their poorest scores (highest numbers). This may well be because students don’t realize they are getting feedback. I have colleagues who, when they give oral feedback, will prefix what they say with “I am now giving you feedback on how you have done” so that it’s recognized for what it is.
So, another question. How much have I improved in recent years? Surely I am a better teacher now than what I was in 2008. I really believe that I am. So my scores should be heading towards 1.  Well, um, maybe not. Here they are. There are two lines – the blue line is the response to the question ‘Overall, this teacher was effective’, averaged over all the papers I took in a given year; the red line is the average of the other questions, averaged over all the papers. The red line closely tracks the blue – this shows the same effect as seen on the first graph. The two correlate well.
Capture3.JPG
So what’s happening. I did something well around 2010 but since then it’s gone backwards (with a bit of a gain this year – though not all of this year’s data has been returned to me yet). There are a couple of comments to make. In 2010 I started on a Post Graduate Certificate of Tertiary Teaching. I put a lot of effort into this. There were a couple of major tasks that I did that were targeted at implementing and assessing a teaching intervention to improve student performance. I finished the PGCert in 2011. That seems to have helped with my scores, in 2010 at least. A quick peruse of my CV, however, will tell you that this came at the expense of research outputs. Not a lot of research was going on in my office or lab during that time.  And what happened in 2012? I had a period of study leave (hooray for research outputs!) followed immediately by a period of parental leave. Unfortunately, I had the same amount of teaching to do and that got squashed into the rest of the year. Same amount of material, less time to do it, poorer student opinions. It seems a logical explanation anyway.
Does all this say anything about whether I am an effective teacher? Can one use a single number to describe it? These are questions that are being considered. Does my data help anyone to answer these questions? You decide.

December 5, 2013

nz’s pisa rankings slip, & the soul-searching begins

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , , — alison @ 11:06 am

The latest PISA results are out, and NZ – despite remaining in the ‘above the average’ group for OECD countries – has nonetheless  slipped in this measure of achievement in reading, maths administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment . This is of concern, & there are probably multiple complex causes for our decline. Certainly the previous PISA commentary (2009) recommended that we pay attention to matters of inequality (There’s interesting commentary here, & also on the RNZ website.)

This morning’s Dominion-Post (I’m in Wellington at the moment, at a teaching symposium) carries a story giving a primary-teaching perspective.There are two key issues here: many primary teachers lack a science or maths background; and primary teachers in general are not well supported to teach these specialist sujects. (The removal of specialist science advisors - something I’ve commented on previously – did not help things.) This is important, because if students don’t gain a good understanding of these subjects – and good experiences of them! – during primary school, then they’ll basically be playing catch-up when they arrive in specialist secondary school classrooms.  Sir Peter Gluckman’s suggestion (in his report Looking ahead: science education in the 21st century) that each primary school have a ‘science champion’ would help here, but in the medium-to-long term it would probably be even better if intending primary school teachers received much greater exposure to the STEM subjects to begin with.

Should we worry? Yes, but I definitely agree with Fiona Ell, from the University of Auckland, who’s quoted in this morning’s Herald as saying:

People get very hung up on the ranking … because it’s like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don’t think they should be ignored … but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are really dangerous in education systems.

So, there are issues that we need to address, and as Fiona’s pointed out, there are no quick fixes – we need to deal with them in a considered way that includes as many variables as possible (i.e. not just practices in schools).

One of those issues is highlighted by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, who’s said:

What’s worrying is that there seems to have been a decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of the scale.

And socioeconomic status may well play a part in this. From the Herald story:

New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student’s performance. Some countries’ education systems made up for social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New Zealand.

So any solution addressing the PISA results will of necessity be complex. It’s not going to be sufficient to look only at what’s going on in schools. Yes, support and professional development for STEM teaching across the compulsory sector will be needed. The quality of teaching is definitely important (for a student’s perspective see the Herald article). But without also seriously considering and attempting to deal with the social inequalities in this country, I suspect changes in the educational sector alone will not be enough.

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